The University of Illinois and the state’s other major academic institutions must do a better job partnering with business and political leaders to bring more research funding to the state, U. of I. board chair Christopher Kennedy urged Tuesday.

Kennedy, in a speech to the City Club of Chicago, argued that garnering more research grants –- which would then lead to new ideas, new companies and new jobs -- would fuel a “job-creation machine” needed in the economically troubled state.

U. of I. currently brings in about $800 million annually in research funds, including about $250 million to UIC.

Kennedy said Boston’s academic, business and political leaders tapped into the economic potential of Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other universities when industries such as shipping died.

Their effective joint lobbying brought more money to the universities and made education key to the city’s economic rebirth, he said.

They “went to Washington to bring home federal government research grants,” said Kennedy, president of Merchandise Mart Properties Inc.
 
“That dynamic has not always existed in a great way in Illinois,” he said, noting that many of the city’s business leaders likely wouldn’t be able to name the presidents of U. of I., Northwestern University, the University of Chicago or DePaul University.
 
“The result has been devastating to our capacity to align our resources to garner a larger share of the federal government research pie,” he said. He said now is a prime opportunity as Illinois native Barack Obama is in the White House and other leaders from the state are in top positions in Washington.

Kennedy, son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, has been the university’s board chair for the past 18 months. He was appointed to the board by Gov. Pat Quinn amid fallout from the university’s admissions scandal.

On Tuesday, he discussed some of the past board’s failings, including alleging that trustees found ways to meet privately “without the imposing conditions of public oversight.”

He also highlighted some of changes since he took over, including hiring a new president.

He was asked how the university could justify giving U. of I. football coach Ron Zook a $250,000 raise, to $1.75 million, despite the university’s financial problems and the team’s mediocre performance. Zook is the university’s highest-paid employee, and his raise is pending board approval.

Kennedy responded that there are three layers of administration between the coach and the board, and the board should not meddle in those decisions. “We are not going to do that now at the University of Illinois,” he said.

jscohen@tribune.com